In 36 years as a college football coach, Kyle Whittingham has never been unemployed.
In the 1980s, he jumped from BYU to Eastern Utah to Idaho State before landing on Ron McBride’s Utah staff as his father’s (then-defensive coordinator Fred Whittingham) defensive line coach 1994. He remained with the Utes for the final nine years of McBride’s tenure, the last eight as defensive coordinator, and was a finalist for the head-coaching vacancy after McBride’s dismissal in late 2002. The other finalist was Urban Meyer, whom Utah eventually hired away from Bowling Green. And the Utes’ new head coach didn’t plan to retain Whittingham.
“I knew of Kyle Whittingham, I knew his father. In the football world, you have to know about the Whittingham family. I was at Colorado State, so I knew the defensive mentality, the toughness. I had friends that I trust in the business say, ‘You have to move on and start fresh,’” Meyer said recently.
“And then all of a sudden you have a guy that interview for the job, Kyle Whittingham, you need a fresh start, break clean and bring your own program there. I was ready to do that, and I met with Kyle and his wife and [my wife] Shelley and I, one thing I’ve been very fortunate is surround myself with big-time people and Kyle is as good of a football coach as I have ever been around I could tell that right away at dinner. I get paid to coach the offense and special teams. I’m gonna hire the best defensive coach I can get my hands on and that was Kyle Whittingham.”
Meyer was “ready” to hire his own defensive coordinator. What if he did? What if Kyle Whittingham was unemployed in December 2004? What effects could’ve Meyer’s decision had on college football?
First, maybe Utah’s defense isn’t as dominant in 2003 and 2004. Maybe they don’t hold 20 of their 24 opponents under 30 points, maybe they don’t win 22 of 24 games, and maybe Meyer doesn’t become one of the most sought-after head coaches in college football history. Instead of hiring Meyer in December 2004, Florida hires Cal head coach Jeff Tedford, whom the Gators were reportedly highly interested in, along with Bobby Petrino, Bob Stoops, Kirk Ferentz, and Butch Davis, though the latter three reportedly declined interest.
To replace Tedford, Cal swipes Dan Hawkins from Boise State, who promotes Chris Petersen like they did a year later when Hawkins took the Colorado job. The Buffaloes can’t hire Hawkins so they land Gary Patterson or Bronco Mendenhall, which opens either TCU or BYU.
When Meyer left Utah for Wisconsin, who opted for the experienced head coach over in-house defensive coordinator Bret Bielema, after the 2005 season, Utah wanted Whittingham to replace Meyer. However, feeling spurned by Utah three years earlier, Whittingham accepted the job at BYU, his alma mater. Bielema doesn’t coach Wisconsin for seven years, doesn’t take the Arkansas job in 2013, and isn’t replaced by Chad Morris in 2018. And maybe Ohio State still lands Meyer at some point, swiping him from Wisconsin. Or maybe they don’t and are forced to Plan B after the Jim Tressel debacle.
And that’s assuming a worse defense kept Meyer at Utah through the 2005 season. What if he still left for Florida after the 2004 season?
The Utes don’t land Whittingham, who takes the BYU job instead, which makes Bronco Mendenhall a free agent instead of Cougars’ head coach. And the Utes promote offensive coordinator Mike Sanford to head coach instead. That would’ve opened the UNLV job, which Sanford took after the 2004 season, and the Runnin’ Rebels hire Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory, USC defensive coordinator Norm Chow, or someone else. Mendenhall doesn’t become BYU head coach in 2005, instead lands on a Pac-10 staff, and earns a head-coaching job somewhere a few years later.
And that’s just the beginning. If the first scenario, maybe Meyer leaves Wisconsin for Notre Dame after one season? And then doesn’t go to Ohio State in 2012? Maybe Whittingham doesn’t join Leach’s Texas Tech staff and instead lands a head-coaching job before BYU, which keeps Mendenhall in Provo. In the second scenario, Mendenhall doesn’t win big at BYU and doesn’t take the Virginia in 2016? Who do the Cavaliers hire instead?
If Urban Meyer hadn’t retained Kyle Whittingham upon his arrival at Utah in December 2002, the college football landscape over the last 16 years might’ve been remarkably different.